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'Ten Canoes': a parable of ordinary empathy

By Liz Conor - posted Tuesday, 18 July 2006

A reverent hush descends over the theatre in the opening scenes of Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. The entirely non-indigenous audience is watching and listening with a particular fascination, one with long traditions, that of Western Moderns appraising the difference of the Indigenous.

We already know that Ten Canoes is set in pre-contact times, some of the narrative takes place in the dreaming. This shimmering realm of myth, of law-making, of relation to place, is for most Australians an intriguing yet inscrutable descriptor of Aboriginal identity, a realm of knowledge that can only be accessed from our side of the colonial divide, our side of the story.

To be taken into a story of pre-contact Aboriginal life, which entirely absents white Australia, promises all the pleasures of our own dream of Aborginality, of an imagined pre-modern human purity, uncorrupted by industrialism and capitalism, a realm of natural harmony. Whatever Rolf de Heer may have intended it is going to difficult for Australians to shake off their investment in the noble savage, the native belle, the piccaninny.


With utmost respect the non-indigenous patrons take in the opening scene. Naked perfectly fit men, with all the gravitas of millennia of tradition, stride out in single file to hunt. Very intently we watch as the trailing man calls them to halt. This is surely serious but unfathomable “business” of some sort. “I refuse to walk at the back” he declares. Has some law been violated? Is this a challenge to customary command?  Has the hunt lost its way, or an ancestor made a sign? “Somebody is farting” he says, and an audible sigh of relief wafts over the staggered seats.

If we came to Ten Canoes expecting an anthropological field study de Heer punctures that inflated fancy with a fart. The day to day and its interplay with a dreaming that is inhabited, not by apparitions, but by people we recognise, this is the province of Ten Canoes. Its storyline is carried by events in the dreaming, and yet the ordinary and imperfect, human foible and fragility, drive the unhurried narrative.

If we are alert to the things that set pre-contact Aborigines apart from us, de Heer affirms that the real difference lies in the manner of storytelling. The gentle unwinding of events which include murder, abduction, jealousy and longing, stands in contrast to the addictive heightened emotion of epic Hollywood.

De Heer is conscious of the lenses whites have focused on Aboriginal people. Many of his scenes step out of the dramatic yet emotionally contained tableau of anthropologist and photographer Donald Thomson. The achievement of Ten Canoes is the way it peoples Aboriginality with unexpected quietude.

Racial difference has been sensational for Europeans. It has been a central fascination for explorers, antiquarians, colonial administrators, settlers, missionaries, and ethnologists. It has been the basis for museum displays, international expositions, circus freak shows, postcards, tea towels and comic books.

De Heer’s film has had a timely release. The latest sensation has been Aboriginal family violence. There is another long tradition in white perceptions of Aboriginal communities - the fear of “primitive” purity being corrupted by modernity and white deviance. White writers from the earliest settlers decried the loss of the noble savage in the drunken vagrant beggar. They saw violence as inherent in the savage and not as manifest in colonised displaced communities suffering loss of livelihood and status, and loss of the only place to be who they knew themselves to be. They were not traumatised refugees. They were, white colonials said over and over again, shocking mimics of their own excesses.


Violence in Aboriginal communities is contemporary Australia’s Dorian Gray portrait of the ongoing impact of land theft, child removal and identity assimilation, that we would rather keep in a remote outback attic. Ten Canoes intervenes in the sensation, offering a new lens instead of entrenched conventions in white perceptions of Aboriginal peoples. It manages to restore difference and invoke a kind of fascination that is not about spectacle but about simple recognition and ordinary empathy.

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About the Author

Liz Conor is a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Read her blog Liz Conor: Comment and Critique here.

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